Author of A Walk on the Wild Side
Class of 2016
“Never Play Cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” From A Walk on the Wild Side (1955).
Nelson Algren (1909-1981) found fame with the publication of his 1949 book, The Man with the Golden Arm, and then a controversial movie that followed in 1955 starring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. As in all his work, The Man with the Golden Arm turned a harsh spotlight on the lives of the poor, addicted, alcoholic and afflicted. His focus on the “people on the other side of the billboard” as he put it set him in stark contrast to his literary contemporaries.
Algren’s family spent part of their lives in Black Oak, Indiana. As a teenager, Algren discovered and became enamored with the dunes of Lake Michigan. His visits there prompted him to use the first substantial money he ever received for writing to purchase a cottage on the lagoon in Miller, Indiana. His place on the lagoon served as a creative oasis for him, where he worked on A Walk on the Wild Side and many other literary endeavors throughout the 1950s.
The life and times of Nelson Algren are as fascinating as his literary output. Coming from modest means, and graduating from college at the height of the Great Depression, he explored the experience and consequences of poverty by riding the rails in the 1930s as a hobo, picking fruit with migrant laborers and working as a carny, all the while documenting the lives of those whose only sin was owning nothing. After gaining fame from The Man with the Golden Arm, he began a decades-long love affair with French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir, who visited him at his Miller cabin. While he wrote, she began a treatise on women and women’s position in the world. Algren counseled her that women were considered a second-class sex, inferior to men, much as African Americans were considered second-class to white America at the time. As a result, she named her book The Second Sex, and began a revolution that changed the world.
After serving in World War II, he returned to America suffering through the Cold War and McCarthyism. While not politically active, his identification with the “down-and-out” made him be viewed as a threat to the US and his passport was denied, jeopardizing his transatlantic relationship with de Beauvoir. He maintained his empathy for the underdog even as the cultural sea changed to post-WWII prosperity caused him to lose favor as well as the ability to earn money.
Readers of Nelson Algren are unable to walk past the poor “stumblebums” of the street without concern. As biographer Bettina Drew stated, “Algren demands compassion” from his readers. He demands sympathy for the less fortunate. His realistic portrayal of the poor has made him able to be considered the Dostoevsky of American Literature.
In 1950, Algren was presented with the first National Book Award by Eleanor Roosevelt. Three months before he died in 1981, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Upon his death, the Chicago Tribune created the Nelson Algren Literary Awards for original short fiction, which catapulted many noted authors to fame. More than 4,200 entries were considered for the award in 2016.
Nelson Algren was nominated by Sue Rutsen and George Rogge, Founders of The Nelson Algren Society of Miller Beach. Photographs by Art Shay © 1953-2016.